Wheat has traditionally been elbowed to the periphery and forced to play a waiting game. Corn and soybean have seen biotechnology advances that protect yield potential like Roundup Ready and Bt tolerance, but they’ve also benefited from tremendous investment in breeding and utilization of diverse germplasm. Wheat hasn’t enjoyed those same innovations. However, industry companies and universities are investing heavily in wheat research and the effort promises long-term genetic gain.
Wheat competes for the acre, and as a vital global crop makes up 20% of caloric intake worldwide across 500 million acres every year. “We’re watching population continuing to increase and narrow crop acreage decisions to two choices,” says Jeff Koscelny, Wheat Commercial Lead, WestBred wheat. “Acreage either expands or productivity rises on the same acreage. Can we increase productivity on the acre and feed the growing world?”
There is a large amount of genetic potential waiting in wheat. The world record for wheat yield came in 2010 when a New Zealand producer hit 232 bu. per acre. In the United States, WestBred recently took a 45 bu. to 55 bu. variety commonly grown in Kansas and Colorado and grew it in the Moses Lake, Wash., area. Under irrigation and high management, it popped out at 200 bu. per acre. “The genetic potential is sitting there and our goal is to foster genetic gain; bring in more diversity; and protect genetic potential from pests and diseases through enhancements in breeding,” Koscelny says.
Monsanto has developed a seed chipper specifically for wheat that allows researchers to look for specific, desirable traits. In addition, Monsanto is expanding double-haploid capacity to shave huge swathes of time off the breeding process. Breeders can spend years trying to get a fixed line, but through double haploids, varieties can be fixed in a single season by using laboratory techniques, greenhouses and growth chambers. Other enhancements previously used in soybeans and corn include automation and ID systems. “We’ve invested heavily in that regard and expect a smooth program with maximum efficiency and productivity.”
What are the agronomic factors and environmental conditions blocking yield gains? The majority of wheat in the U.S. is grown in low rainfall areas and on marginal land. Koscelny says 60% of planted wheat acres in the U.S. are coming from on-farm, saved seed. “There are farmers missing out on new genetics with higher in-seed potential. There are a couple of great seed treatments we’re exploring very heavily in wheat in terms of Jumpstart LCO and Quickroots that have shown enhanced root mass, better gathering of nutrients, and healthier plants heading into winter that turn into real productivity.”
On the other 40% of wheat acreage, where growers are using the technology available, particularly in areas of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, it’s not unheard of for producers to hit above 100 bu. per acre in dryland production, according to Steve Sebesta, WestBred’s Northern Regional Commercial Manager. “These growers are managing their crop properly to protect the yield potential of the varieties they are planting, and they’re able to get more out of the genetics of the wheat.”
WestBred is approaching wheat research in an aggressive manner, seeking to pick up genetic gain due to major steps in wheat investment. Wheat geography typically parallels tough climates and ground; low rainfall areas across the U.S. usually line up with wheat acreage. “We don’t pretend that wheat gains will play exactly like other crops, and that’s partly related to the tough geographies where wheat is grown,” says Matt Brenneman, wheat testing lead, Monsanto. “Technology can be applied and yield gain is great opportunity in wheat.”
Sebesta believes the wheat industry is starving for innovation and investment. “That’s why Monsanto got back in the wheat business in 2009 with the purchase of WestBred wheat. They recognized the major stakeholders in the wheat value chain were interested in maintaining business. Wheat is an important crop in the U.S. and a tremendous value internationally.”
As research and innovation improve wheat varieties, Sebesta expects farmers will plant increasing amounts of wheat on better ground and achieve higher yields through a boosted recipe: seed treatments, genetics, fertilizer, and fungicides. “As we learn more about varieties and genetics, we can optimize the performance of any wheat variety. Farmers can then put more into wheat and get more out.”